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> Columns > Boston Globe > An Unsure and Tentative Bush

An Unsure and Tentative Bush

By Cathy Young | October 5, 2004

IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged that style in presidential debates matters more than substance, and in terms of style last night was a good night for John Kerry. His delivery was forceful and confident, he stayed on message, and in that sense he did a good job of counteracting his image as an indecisive flip-flopper.

President Bush came across as far more tentative and unsure of himself. At times, he responded to specific criticism by falling back on generalities about good intentions: When Kerry listed some troubling homeland security gaps, Bush's answer was to stress that he thinks constantly about how best to protect America and that "there's a lot of really good people working hard to do so."

The president also made the most unlucky slip of the evening: repeatedly confronted on failing to capture Osama bin Laden while going after Saddam Hussein, he said, "Of course we're after Saddam Hussein - I mean bin Laden."

Has Kerry completely disposed of the flip-flopping issue? Probably not. Bush was repeatedly able to score points by citing Kerry's earlier words: not just the vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq, but the comment in December 2003 that anyone who doubts that the world is better off without Saddam in power does not have the judgment to be president.

Nor did Kerry avoid inconsistencies last night. While saying that "we can do a better job of training the Iraqi forces to defend themselves," he complained about spending too much of the American taxpayers' money on police and firehouses in Iraq. He was not able to entirely deflect Bush's charge that there is a demoralizing mixed message in saying that this is "the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place" and that we must stay the course and win.

Kerry's strongest point was that Bush "rushed the war in Iraq without a plan to win the peace." However, I doubt that he convinced many voters when he asserted, "I know exactly what we need to do in Iraq." In that sense, while Kerry did well in the debate, he didn't get the win he badly needed.

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